Until This Point, Homefront has been nothing more than a stylised movie of a time line. We've witnessed, in a boldly animated series of captions, exactly how the land of Big Apple Pies and John Waters will fall to the brutal ideology of North Korea. It starts with real events of 2009, making the whole process feel more reasonable than it is, and ended with an invasion of the USA in 2025. The message is clear: fear Korea.
In making the game believable, Kaos and THQ have dedicated a surprising majority of their first look presentation to discussing the probability of their fictitious future. Or, to paraphrase former CIA agent Tae Kim, they're taking the events of Homefront and explaining how they're going to have happened. It's unsettling - like THQ and Kaos are trying to promote their fiction to prediction -but when you've got talent like John Milius, writer of Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn, writing your story, it behooves you to take it a little seriously.
So, to borrow Tae Kim's future tense abuse, how will this come about? North Korea currently has a destitute economy, while famine has claimed the lives of millions. Tae explains that North Korea's poverty can be explained due to the expense of maintaining the world's fourth largest standing army.
You Need To Solo
Even while Korean soldiers are standing there, they're dwarfed by the bewildering might of the US, which for decades has taken it upon itself to finger as many oily global pies as possible. Kaos Studios' first commercial release, Frontlines, was primarily a multiplayer FPS. There was a storyline - Russia and China teaming up to attack America - but it was all built around the multiplayer experience. There were some interesting and innovative ideas - not least the drones, the inhuman presence of which lent a tense edge to all modes. But THQ's Danny Bilson admits, lacking a solo game is a crippling.
"You just can't put a game out now and compete if there isn't a strong singleplayer campaign," he says. So then, what's the story with Homefront?
After a second round of economic collapse, the USA reluctantly withdraws from its self-appointed role of Governor of the Universe. Its interventionist foreign policies has made enemies, prominent amongst them North Korea. Even today, anti-American propaganda is currently the only information given to North Korea's populace who don't even know that everybody loves Raymond.
Rise Of Nk
Tae tells the story of introducing himself to a North Korean national, who was surprised at how human he seemed. As far as the propaganda is concerned, American-Korean 'bastards' are not considered to be the same species as humans, let alone race. Denying your enemy humanity: it's no less monstrous for being a cliche.
So, that time line in brief: in 2012, Kim Jong-II dies, and is replaced by Kim Jong-un, his youngest son. So far so realistic: Kim Jong-un is tipped to succeed his father, but he's a mysterious figure, with the last official picture released when he was 11 Charismatic and aggressive in 2012, it takes him just three years to unite Korea - and presumably he's efficient at crushing dissent, because we're told of no objections when he stops everyone playing StarCraft II.
Three years later again, in 2018, Kim Jong-un's army absorbs Japan, boosting his army from two to five million. Kim said this would also give him "turnkey access to nuclear weapons". You'd think that the last thing America would do at this stage is have a lethal flu epidemic, but that's exactly what those kooky sods do, just as the remaining South East Asian states join up with North Korea. "We're not saying Korea conquers all of them," clarifies Tae Kim, in response to a room full of bemused stares. "Just that there was a military exchange."
I'm beginning to feel overwhelmed by the parade of numbers being shot at us (see The Power Shift), so I smile in an astounded way to my neighbour. "This is bullshit" he whispers.
So Here We Are
A invasion of the West Coast in 2025, helped by an orbiting nuclear bomb, leads to Korea setting up a HQ in San Francisco before spreading across America. When the Korean army meets the Mississippi, which bisects America, they don't cross it. Instead, they fill it with nuclear waste, converting it into a huge, radioactive Berlin Wall.
So, what's southern American life like, under the rule of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea? Safe to say, things take a gentle turn for the horrific. North Korea's belief in its own moral infallibility means that its people can be treated with casual monstrosity, so the general public of enemy nations don't stand a chance. In the artwork, Americans dangle from huge water towers, in a showy equivalent of hanging pirates from the docks.
Those that have formed pockets of resistance live in camps. This is where our hero, Jacobs, wakes up. We meet Boone, a friendly bearded chap who looks like he's had military experience. Then we meet Conner, a man who would probably have been called a 'jock' in a teen movie. Now, we'll just settle on calling him a prick. Then we meet Rianna, a bandana-wearing lady with some adorable freckles. The camp is idyllic. Severed from external power sources, it's purely self-sufficient. Butts store the commune's water, greenhouses and vegetable patches are dotted here and there, and a child plays on a swing. Daily life is going on - a man sterilising some jars, a man milking a goat, and a man keeping fit on a battered step machine. It's well-realised, and we walk around, meeting everyone in the camp.
You know you're being lulled into a false sense of security. And although we're not shown what happens to the camp after we descend into the tunnels underneath it, Kaos' artwork tells the story vividly. The swing that the child was playing on has been converted into a torture device that suspends Boone in a star from the chains. A row of bodies has been organised, as though they're being presented to us, and the buildings have been burned.
The second level we're shown is pure action. And for a linear FPS, it has a unexpectedly fresh feel to it. We're constantly on the move, not because someone's shouting in our ear telling us where to go, but because we're propelled on by urgency. When our watchtower wasn't being destroyed by a friendly mortar strike, we were darting along corridors of fire with Rianna choking on the chemicals in the searing hot air.
Some of this will inevitably be familiar: we have to protect a Goliath tank from the crippling attacks of an EMP rocketeer, but there's still the sense of innovation. One of your weapons tags enemies with a red diamond, telling your Goliath to kill - presuming it's not stunned by an EMP. But the impression that this is a team of people who aren't seasoned professionals is a success.
Any moral decisions on offer here, such as whether to shoot people who are burning to death, don't affect the flow of the game in some artificially branching way - that's for your conscience. If you want to play as a Korean, you'll be restricted to multiplayer mode. Although nothing's being officially said about this side at this point, it's where Kaos' roots are: they were born out of Desert Conflict, their Battlefield 1942 mod. Judging from the artwork around the building, which shows symmetrical teams on the USA and North Korean armies, it'll be a system similar to Frontlines, with familiar load-outs on the wall: assault rifle, submachine gun, light machine gun, and snipers. When more details emerge, we can expect a polished game, hopefully with a couple of surprises. The effort gone into making North Korea feel like a real threat is still slightly baffling. Tell us a story, we'll believe it. That's what suspension of disbelief is. And even without that, some might say THQ have underestimated the average gamer's capacity to unquestioningly shoot whatever soulless polygons you put in front of them.
Kaos would argue that they're trying to give the polygons souls: and when you're presenting a world where violence and its consequences are displayed, your point will be lost if the world doesn't ring true to the shooters.
So, it's with a new desire to read up on North Korean government and the living conditions of its citizens, that I can report a refreshed interest in Homefront. Where Frontlines faltered, Homefront looks like it might excel: in terms of story, atmosphere and having an engaging single-player campaign. Kaos have only the indifference of the marketplace to overcome. And that, we're guessing, is what the America-being-invaded thing is all about.
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP